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Stephanie Street: Tear up the rule book, it is not serving talent or audiences

Clare Burt in Flowers for Mrs Harris. Photo: Johan Persson
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Last week restored my faith in the gods of casting. In previous editions I have griped about actors not being rightfully appreciated for their craft and hard graft. I’ve raged about how we are often valued only by our celebrity cachet, or the number of Instagram followers we have.

And then two performances I was fortunate enough to catch last week blew all that out of the water. The actors in question, to whom my chapeau is properly doffed, are Clare Burt and Sandra Oh in, respectively, Flowers for Mrs Harris and Killing Eve.

I came to both shows with major expectations. I had heard about Clare’s performance after the musical’s first outing in Sheffield. Transcendent, they all said. But that doesn’t even go halfway. Her Mrs Harris is humanity laid completely open. It is a beautifully, contrarily written part and she fills every groove and pore of it with truth and complexity. There is nothing remotely linear or predictable about what she does and I don’t think I will get the sound of her voice out of my head for a long while. I could go on and on, but you catch my drift: when I grow up I want to be like her.

And then this weekend I binge-watched three episodes of Killing Eve. In full and frank disclosure, I had the knives out for this one. I came very close to a stonking part in season two, but in the end it “went the other way”.

I set about watching the first season with the same sorts of interior blackness as one might have meeting an ex’s new lover – desperate to hate it. But instead I found myself totally in love with the sassy, funny, dripping-with-sarcasm turn Oh takes as Eve.

I have been a fangirl since Grey’s Anatomy and it is precisely the absence of the desire to please in her acting that I so love. Her face isn’t beautiful when she cries – it is contorted with the real pain of humanity. I believe every syllable that comes out of her mouth.

Neither of these women are celebrities in the real, seedy sense of the word. Fellow actors love them, but I bet either could walk down the street relatively unharassed. They have risen to the top, not because they have played the PR game, but because they are obscenely talented and clearly masters of their craft. And their talents are, thankfully, being given proper expression in these two shows.

But this has not always been the way. Oh wrote with feeling about the distinct lack of opportunities that came her way after her role in Grey’s Anatomy and the numerous nominations that came with it. Burt should be fronting film after film but she isn’t. The fact that I’m writing about it tells me that it’s the exception rather than the rule. It’s time to tear up the rule book.

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